Friday, March 13, 2015

Vayakhel-Pekudei and Breathing Shabbat

The Torah commands: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord.” (Exodus 35:2)

The Rabbis expand. They weave interpretations. They suspend a mountain from the Torah’s thread. They sanctify the seventh day with blessings and songs. They set the day apart by their laws and restrictions. From this command they define thirty-nine categories of prohibited work.

They build what Abraham Joshua Heschel lovingly calls a palace in time. For the Jew the Sabbath day is a sanctuary. It is not constructed of space but of time. We spend our week seeking to master the world. We pray in a sanctuary of time. On Shabbat we bow to the setting of the sun. Heschel writes:
The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere. It is not a different state of consciousness but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed. The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than of the Sabbath being within us. We may not know whether our understanding is correct, or whether our sentiments are noble, but the air of the day surrounds us like a spring which spreads over the land without our aid or notice. (The Sabbath)
We must ask: do we wish to participate in constructing this sanctuary? Do we wish to make Shabbat a part of our commitments? As Reform Jews we need not take every law and demand to heart. Still Shabbat beckons. An atmosphere awaits.

I am in the midst of reading a new book about Shabbat, Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. In it she observes:
Our schedules are not the only thing the Sabbath would disrupt if it could. It would also rip a hole in all the shimmering webs that give modern life its pleasing aura of weightlessness—the networks that zap digitized voices and money and data from server to iPhone to GPS. In a world of brightness and portability and instantaneous intimacy, the Sabbath foists on the consciousness the blackness of night, the heaviness of objects, the miles that keep us apart. The Sabbath prefers natural to artificial light. If we want to travel, it would make us walk, though not too far. If we long for social interaction, it would have us meet our fellow man and woman face-to-face. If we wish to bend the world to our will, it would insist that we forgo the vast majority of the devices that extend our reach and multiply our efficacy.
Who would not agree that our many electronic devices have come to rule our lives? How our lives might be different if we instead allowed God’s creation to dictate our schedules—at least on one day. On Shabbat we could look not to our iPhones, as we are incessantly forced to do, but instead to the beginning of evening. “And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” (Genesis 1)

Shulevitz continues: “There is something gorgeously naïve about the Sabbath. To forbid people their tools and machines and commercial transactions, to reduce their social contacts to those who live no more than a village’s distance away—it seems a child’s idea, really, of life before civilization.”

We are offered a day to catch our breath. We are given a day to breathe in the neshamah yetirah—the additional soul, the added breath.

Although we do not participate fully in the tradition’s strictures, I continue to wonder how we can make Shabbat a part of our lives. We should ask, can I take the tradition’s intent seriously. How can I bring meaning to my life, to my week, by pausing on this day?

There is something almost magical about setting a day apart.

The Zionist thinker, Ahad Haam, remarked: “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”

We pause. Shabbat breathes life.

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